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The Big Money, High-Stakes iPhone Case Race

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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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Apple's newest phones sold 10 million units last weekend—strange reports of bending aside, they're breaking records left and right. In 2013, the 5c and 5s sold nine million units in their opening weekend, while the 4s sold a paltry four million the year before. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus outdid that in pre-sales alone.

But on September 19th, Apple wasn't the only one benefiting from millions of credit card swipes. While the company carefully plotted its feverishly hyped launch, case manufacturers spent the months leading up to the public iPhone announcement betting their reputations, as well as huge sums of money, on well-educated guesses about what the new iPhone might look like.

In keeping with Apple's impossibly secretive ways, the company does not disclose specifications for its new devices before its big events. If case manufacturers want to have new iPhone cases ready to sell by launch date (which, this year, was 10 days after the announcement), they'll have to rely on leaked specs, inside sources, and, ultimately, a costly gamble on measurements not officially confirmed by Apple. If they guess wrong, the manufactured cases become worthless and the company eats the cost.

"We actually have a team over in China dedicated to making sure everything goes smoothly for launch and that cases fit as soon as we're able to get the device in hand," Peter Castellino, brand manager at Case-Mate, told Racked. "There have been a couple iPhone launches where manufacturers have had issues with the form and fit of the cases because a specification or something has changed."

For manufacturers who commit to having product on the shelf the day of the Apple release, production teams rely on a mix of intel from both public leaks and sources inside Apple factories. Tumi explained that they employ a dual-development method of production in which the case aesthetic is locked in and materials are pre-ordered before the launch. Though the final cases aren't made until the actual product dimensions are confirmed, they can rush production to get the merch completed on time.

But not every company has this luxury. The Baltimore Sun followed a local case maker who stalked spec leaks on tech blogs for months and ended up investing tens of thousands of dollars in untested iPhone 6 and 6 Plus merchandise. The company was able to fulfill thousands of order shipments, but the guesswork doesn't always, well, work. In 2011, Hard Candy spent $50,000 on a 4s case prototype that turned out to be wrong.

To make matters worse, the fear of Apple's wrath keeps many manufacturers' mouths shut about the whole process. Many sources we spoke with either avoided questions or politely declined to comment. "There have been companies in the past who have tried to leak cases ahead of time in order to get more PR," Castellino said by way of explanation. "Apple doesn't look too highly on that."

Photo: Getty Images

However, not every case maker takes issue with the way the company chooses to run their operation, due in large part to all those leaks. "Many might think that not knowing what Apple's going to do is the hardest part," Jon Lucca, co-founder of Twig Case Co., wrote to Racked in an email. "Not really. Leaks are big business for blogs and ad impressions, and if you look, you'll have a very good idea of what to expect for the new iPhone."

Jennie Yoon, the director of partnerships at Casetify, also noted that the iPhone 6 in particular seemed to be well-leaked compared to previous iterations. "Every Apple release have been different," she said. "We're not sure if that has to do with whether Steve Jobs was there or Tim Cook taking over, but with the recent ones, there's definitely been faster leaks."

Lucca made the decision not to produce iPhone 6 cases before Apple released specifications, but said it wasn't an easy call. "There is a ton of pressure to have cases even before a new iPhone is officially announced," he explained. "Every day sooner you have cases out is extra revenue and attention. You get your case on a new iPhone, and everyone is going to see it when the proud owner is out there showing off the shiny new phone. It would be great to be ready on the first day, but I'd rather bring the DJ and be late to the party than be first in the door with some saltines."

Fashion companies who dabble in tech accessories also choose not to engage in the mad rush to have cases ready on launch day, albeit for different reasons. "Because it's not their primary business," Castellino said, "they're going to work with a third-party case manufacturer to produce those." As such, there's generally a lag.

Case-Mate has acted as a third-party manufacturer for brands in the past, but the process isn't as rewarding as producing straight collaborations. The company is currently working on a tech wearables and accessories collection with Rebecca Minkoff, and Minkoff-branded iPhone 6 and 6 Plus cases are already available for sale on Case-Mate's site. J.Crew, Kate Spade, and others won't have new cases ready for sale until later in the year.

There's hope that in the future, it won't always be such a hassle to produce iPhone cases timed to launches. Companies including Samsung, Motorola, and HTC operate certified partnership programs with qualified tech accessory manufacturers to smooth out the process, but Apple has yet to hint at any sort of partnership program for iPhone cases.

"Being a member of these programs is very beneficial because the device manufacturers are willing to share specifications to ensure that their accessory partners produce the highest-quality cases and have them available on device launch day," Castellino explained. "You would think that Apple would want other companies to make the best products for their devices, and we're hoping that at some point they'll open up some kind of a partnership program like other device manufacturers, but for now it's pretty tricky. It's quite a process."

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